Neontigers by Peter Bialobrzeski
Neon is a natural product. And it is a rare one. Its concentration in the atmosphere is 1.8 x 10-3 by volume percent, or put more simply: 0.002 percent—this is all that exists of the gas, at least on our planet. Synthetic manufacturing? Impossible. That is the wonderful thing about neon light in its classic form: although it represents complete artificiality and cold modernity (very different from the twinkling gas lanterns in Julius Rodenberg's Paris), the raw material for neon tubes cannot be artificially manufactured.
The same applies to Peter Bialobrzeski's magical photographs in Neon Tigers. They too are—so to speak—from a natural source. Although they appear to be digital fiction, they are analogue. No mouse click has ever interfered with them, no picture editing has calculated them. Like neon lights, Bialobrzeski's images only give a hint of the chaos beneath their surface. The crowds that make their way through these megacities are often as invisible as the streams of electrons in the lamps that begin to glow on collision with the gas atoms. Because people are rare in these photographs, the spectator's gaze is drawn to the artificial light. Sometimes the neon lights of Asia radiate from Bialobrzeski's pictures as if the concentration of 1.8 x 10-3 by volume percent were glowing all at once.
Not How It Really Is There, But How It Could Be
"My intention is not to show how it is there," says Peter Bialobrzeski. "When I photograph it, I want to show how it could be." When talking about Neon Tigers, he often uses terms such as "dream" and "fiction." He frequently refers to films, books, computer games: Blade Runner and Star Wars, William Gibson's novels Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, or the computer game Sim City. For Bialobrzeski, all of these images, myths, and fantasies are linked to one another, and he wants the person looking at the image to have the same experience. He wants the facts to disappear at some point, creating the illusion that all of these cities are one city. A new city. A city that cannot be found on the map, but only in the atlas created by Neon Tigers.
"The picture should have the power to enchant. This is what I always aim to do," explains the photographer. What is clear is that he is the first to be enchanted by the project, by an imaginary Asia, that for him symbolizes a hypermodern fantasy world. Yet he photographs this world with the most old-fashioned apparatus imaginable: the analogue box camera. "If I did it on the computer," he says, "it would be boring."
If you lose yourself in the images in Neon Tigers, you can imagine the photographer as a kind of flying eye. Childlike fantasies are conjured up: of a man who is floating through canyons of high-rise buildings, defying gravity, without limits—like in a PlayStation universe. Of course, the daily routine is different. Bialobrzeski arrives in a megacity, looks for a hotel downtown, checks in. Then he sets off, always in the morning. Without his camera—it's too heavy—he just carries a notepad with him. He goes through the streets of Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, walks in concentric circles around the hotel. Makes notes. Tries somehow to get up high—by climbing upwards over the parking levels. Or by convincing receptionists in hotels and skyscrapers to let him climb up into the vertical world of these metropolises. When he has found a couple of good perspectives he goes back to the hotel. Eats. Rests. Sets off again in the afternoon with his camera—always at the same time, always between four and seven p.m. Squeezes into an elevator with his tripod and glides upwards. Sets up the tripod. Opens the shutter. Sometimes for four minutes, sometimes for eight.
In 1839, Daguerre photographed the busy Boulevard du Temple in Paris. Because the exposure time had to be so long, the hectic crowds of pedestrians and vehicles vanished from the picture. Only one man was recognizable: he had just paused for a moment to have his shoes polished. Although the cities Bialobrzeski is interested in have little resemblance to the European cities of the nineteenth century, the way of presenting the city is the same. The people blur, disappear altogether. The urban chaos is calmed, banished by a man beneath a black cloth.
Bialobrzeski likes to present himself as the absurd figure from the nineteenth century who moves through the metropolises of the future. He heaves his tripod through the megacities, because he is interested in the picture itself, not the technicalities. "You simply have to know what medium you can use to express something in particular," he says. "For this project it was the large format camera and nothing else." The unwieldy apparatus also has a big advantage: "People take you much more seriously," explains Bialobrzeski. "When you turn up in one of these places for the first time to take pictures, you are still just some tourist. However, the camera is your pass for a kind of mission, something that is somehow very official."
Whether with a heavy or a light load: Bialobrzeski is not a "wild shooter": during his stay in the Asian metropolis, he did not take more than six to eight photos daily, of one or two different places. He also has a rigid selection procedure. One stage of his project, for example, is completely invisible. "I took photos in Jakarta for ten days," says Bialobrzeski, "but I did not select any of those photos because they were too reminiscent of classic skyline photography."
The photographer distances himself from the obsession with architectural monumentality. That also applies to the anecdotic effects of street and reportage photography. His image selection is complicated, not dramatic. He reduces the contrasts. He softens the colors to pastel shades. These images are not intended to turn the viewer on like a dumb pickup. They are intended to flirt, with style. To seduce. They should be hypermodern, nor hyperprosaic. They should represent everyday life without being crude.
The Emerald Megacities of Southeast Asia By VICKI GOLDBERG